Back when I wanted to be a fiction writer, I wanted to be the kind of fiction writer who has a dramatic slide into the abyss. It wasn't long after I stopped writing short stories that it occurred to me that dying old, desperate and alone probably wasn't nearly as inspiring for the people it happened to as it was for twenty-year olds looking for an excuse to smoke too much.
Dorothy Parker and F. Scott Fitzgerald are Exhibits A and B here, as I thought when I read this from Terry Teachout the other day:
I admire Fitzgerald's best work without reservation--I consider The Great Gatsby the great American novel--but I can't think of another major writer who led a less edifying life. The story of Fitzgerald's drunken slide into artistic inertia is so pathetic that it's hard to take, and the more you read, the more depressed you get.
But then, a note from one of Terry's friends suggests, maybe there was something heroic about it after all:
I have read Great Gatsby three times and still can't feel why it slays people. In some funny way I think it is a guy book not a girl book. (I like Tender best.) But Fitz's life--that moves me! He had the guts to face his deterioration and write about it; to the end of his life he remained kind to other writers, and generous even to pricks like Hemingway; his naked admiration for their work and his appreciation for what it took from them to produce it; his never joining an ideological tong to protect his reputation, his never going left; his saying 'life is a cheat and the conditions are those of defeat and the only thing that stands and redeems is work' ; his love for the Murphys, for every excellent character he met; his admission of his failures; his attempt to make it work in hollywood; his note taking on thalberg; his brave open heart. I know he was an ass, but he was a wonderful endearing ass and in the end his life really did have some epic grandeur. I just had to hold high the Stand Up for Scott Fitzgerald banner today.